China is the world champion at “cancel culture.” Only when the communist tyranny cancels you, you aren’t just hounded off social media or pushed out of a job in the media or academia. You are literally canceled; executed, organ harvested, imprisoned, forced into a concentration camp, or excluded from all social participation in society.
The targets of this despotism are primarily religious believers — Falun Gong, Uyghur Muslims, and, most recently, Christians. Millions have been victimized by these vicious pogroms in recent years — and it appears the persecution has just gotten started.
Why is the Chinese government acting so ruthlessly against its major religions? People need meaning, not a strong suit of materialistic communism. But as the Bible states, faith can move mountains. Paranoid Chinese Communist Party leaders view organized religion as threatening their desired absolute control over the Chinese people by becoming potent competing power centers — even when that is not a religion’s intention. Indeed, Party leaders view faith as both subversive to the kind of utopian society they claim to want to construct and a competitor for the people’s loyalty.
Nina Shea, Director for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, says that the Chinese regime is moving against religion to consolidate its power. “The ultimate goal is to eradicate religion by either squeezing or crushing it out,” Shea says.
China is pursuing a two-tiered approach to this process of social pulverization: jackboot thuggery and social excommunication. The former is the more brutal, but the latter — as we shall see — may ultimately be the most effective form of despotism ever imposed by a government.
The first contemporary anti-religion pogrom in China focused on the Falun Gong (also called Falun Dafa). Founded in the early 1990s, the religion describes itself as “an advanced self-cultivation practice of the Buddha School.” Adherents seek “assimilation to the highest qualities of the universe: Zhen, Shan, Ren (Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance)” through “practice” that employs meditation, specific stretching exercises “to open up all energy channels,” and studying books written by its founder, Fe Hongzhi.
That would not seem threatening. But when the Falun Gong refused to establish Communist Party branches in the ’90s and gained tens of millions of adherents, the authorities decided to crush the movement. It was banned, and in 1999 the authorities mounted a persecution campaign, ranging from public beatings, to arrest and murder, sometimes accompanied by organ harvesting to provide China’s transplant black market with human kidneys and livers.
The depth of this depravity was first forcefully exposed in an explosive report issued by Canadian former member of Parliament David Kilgour and prominent human-rights attorney David Matas. Their 2006 “Report Into Allegations of Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China” shocked the consciences of all decent people.
Even though China is, to say the least, an opaque society that does not allow oversight from the outside, the evidence mounted by Kilgour and Matas in 46 grueling pages built a compelling exposé of “large scale organ seizures from unwilling Falun Gong practitioners.” The report noted that there were about 10,000 more transplants per year than “identifiable sources” for the organs that were procured. But it was the cumulative effect of the evidence that really proved persuasive. For example, from 2000 to 2005 — a time after the persecution of Falun Gong commenced — there was an increase of 41,500 transplants from the previous six-year period. “Where do the organs come from for the [additional] 41,500 transplants?,” the authors ask pointedly. “The allegation of organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners provides an answer.”
There was much more. Several surviving family members of Falun Gong who died in detention reported seeing their loved ones’ bodies with “surgical incisions and body parts missing.” One witness — not a Falun Gong member — told investigators that her surgeon husband “told her that he personally removed the corneas from approximately 2,000 anaesthetized Falun Gong prisoners.” According to this hearsay evidence, none of prisoners survived and all of the bodies were cremated.
As shocking as these conversations are, the most compelling evidence of systemic wrongdoing in Chinese organ-procurement practices could be found in the breathtakingly brief time purchasers had to wait to receive a properly matched organ in China — often as short as a week, a period so brief that the authors worried that “there are a number of people now alive who are available almost on demand as sources of organs.”
China denounced the report and denied the truth of its contents. But it also acted to outlaw organ selling. Unfortunately, that was mere veneer. In The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem, published in 2014, China expert and author Ethan Gutmann estimated that between 2001 and 2008 some 65,000 organs were harvested from Falun Gong. These people were tissue typed, matched to organ purchasers, executed, and harvested.
Illustrating the factual basis for the charge of mass organ harvesting from political prisoners, in the 2009 book Larry’s Kidney Daniel Asa Rose tells the story of traveling with his cousin Larry to buy a new kidney in China. After a series of mishaps and complications, Larry got his new blood filter within a relatively short time. Oh, joy for Larry! But what about the dead, harvested donor? As the bioethicist Arthur L. Caplan, Director of Medical Ethics, NYU Langone Medical Center, once put it, “If you’re going to China and you’re going to get a liver transplant during the three weeks you are there, then that means someone is going to go schedule an execution.”
Alas, forced organ harvesting in China was like the old saw about the weather: everyone complains, but no one does anything about it. Having essentially gotten away with the blood rape of Falun Gong, China next focused on the Muslim population of Uyghurs, who primarily live in the country’s western interior. If anything, the regime grew even more brutal as time went on, establishing concentration camps in which hundreds of thousands are imprisoned and engaging in monstrous crimes against humanity. As highlighted in the June 2019 final report of the China Tribunal — an independent, international investigation into China’s oppression of religious minorities and other prisoners of conscience — in addition to forced organ harvesting, the government has “beyond a reasonable doubt” committed the following atrocities “in the course of widespread and systematic attacks against the Falun Gong and Uyghurs”:
“Taken together,” the report concludes, “Such attacks and such acts constitute crimes against humanity.”
Such brutal methods are not unprecedented in the world, of course. German concentration camps and Soviet gulags leap immediately to mind. Alas, neither is the general lack of significant international protest or meaningful actions taken to punish China for engaging in acts that are beyond the pale in any society that calls itself “civilized.”
Now, the Chinese have introduced new methods of nonviolent but effective persecution aimed at the country’s Christians, that, if anything, could prove more efficient in suppressing people of faith. Nina Shea explains,
There are more Christians in China than there are Communist Party members. Over the last couple of decades, some of these “underground” churches were tolerated. But that changed in 2018 when new rules were promulgated suppressing religion and switching enforcement against unapproved churches to the Communist Party itself.
As a consequence, children cannot be brought into a church, meaning the faith cannot be effectively passed on to offspring. Similar to what happened to the Russian Orthodox Church during the worst times of Stalin, churches “approved” by the regime have become mechanisms for spying on the parishioners and suppressing the faith. “Some churches do finger and facial recognition scans of parishioners so that the authorities know who are attending,” Shea told me. “Surveillance cameras have been placed throughout the churches, religious symbols have been stripped from walls, and propaganda anthems have replaced traditional Christian hymns.” There are even reports that the Party is editing the Bible to make it consistent with socialist precepts. Unapproved churches have been demolished and their flocks scattered.
Wait. It gets more insidious. In a move out of a dystopian futuristic novel, China is introducing a “social credit” system, in which facial recognition technologies, artificial intelligence, GPS, and other means of high-tech surveillance track individual behavior and social associations. Computer algorithms analyze the compiled data and computes the person’s “social score.” Enter an unapproved church and lose points. Have a conversation with a person already denigrated with a low credit score, and your own score is lowered. Speak to foreigners, and risk demerits.
The system, not yet in full operation, applies both carrots and sticks. Benefits of a high social credit score can include lower cost rent. But the consequences of low social credit are draconian — in essence, societal excommunication, including job loss, the inability to rent an abode, even blackballing from riding the downtown bus. But it gets worse. The social sins of the parents are borne by the children. A child may be kicked out of university and stripped of his or her own ability to work, which in turn, could destroy their future, for example, making them unable to find a spouse or participate in a community’s social groups.
In many ways, this forced shunning could be a more effective means of social control than the threat of blood martyrdom. It is one thing to die for one’s own faith, but perhaps another to consign your son or daughter to official non-personhood status. As Shea put it, “China is developing the most comprehensive means of totalitarian control the world has ever imagined.” Worse, “It is almost invisible because observers have no access.” In other words, we know that China has established concentration camps in Uyghur territory because our satellites have photographed them. Testimonials have told the shocking stories of organ harvesting against the Falun Gong. But how do observers monitor the loss of social status? How do human rights advocates get people’s blood boiling about Christians being unable to access public transportation? How effective will complaining about people sleeping in shanties because they can’t rent an apartment when we have a homeless crisis of our own? Indeed, how can definitive evidence be gathered about the number of people socially disappeared and its consequences when there is no ability to conduct free and independent studies?
Then there is the problem of how loudly money talks. The world is not about to go to war with China over these practices. Nor, if current policies are any judge, are they likely to isolate the country internationally or extract a significant cost to its economy. Yes, the United States has imposed sanctions against individual perpetrators of the Uyghur persecution, and yes, Secretary of State Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback have, to their credit, spoken out forcefully against the brutal suppression of faithful people in China. But President Trump has not followed suit, going so far as to tell Fox News interviewer Laura Ingraham on January 10, when she asked about the country’s religious persecution, that while human rights “are important,” he is “riding a fine line because we are making great trade deals.” Clearly, the president’s priorities are not with the Uyghurs, Falun Gong, Catholics, and Protestants suffering under blood and social martyrdom.
But trade is not a one-way street. China is as dependent on international commercial relations with other countries as they are on it — and that presents a potential way forward in which the private sector can moderate China’s despotism against its own people. After all, we’ve seen large corporations threaten Indiana with commercial ostracism for passing a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that activists contended would lead to discrimination against LGBT citizens. Ditto, when North Carolina passed a supposedly anti-transgender law requiring people to use public bathrooms associated with their biological sex. We’ve certainly seen people fired for having made discriminatory comments in the past or on social media and restaurant chains and other businesses targeted for boycotts. If those purported “wrongs” are worth punishing privately, why not also China, which is committing crimes against humanity on an industrial scale?
Facebook has already started down that road because of China’s censorship of its internet platforms. In a recent speech at Georgetown University, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, explained why the company does not do business in China:
I wanted our services in China because I believe in connecting the whole world and I thought we might help create a more open society. I worked hard to make this happen. But we could never come to agreement on what it would take for us to operate there, and they never let us in. And now we have more freedom to speak out and stand up for the values we believe in and fight for free expression around the world.
Imagine the potential impact if Facebook’s example were followed by Google, Boeing, the NBA, and dare I say it, Apple. What if these mega-corporations joined together to say that they believe in human rights and they will be unable to do further business with a nation that incarcerates Muslims in concentration camps, rips the organs out of political prisoners, and socially cancels Christians simply for following Jesus Christ? I’m not naïve. I wouldn’t expect China to become an enlightened and free society. But perhaps, just perhaps, the worst abuses could be ameliorated, and people of faith allowed to practice that faith — which, after all, is a fundamental human right — without being crushed by their government.
At the very least, as we acknowledge the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz amid cries of “Never again!,” can we at least act like we really mean it? If there was ever a time to make that venerable slogan more than mere empty posturing and feel-good virtue signaling, this is it.
Award-winning author Wesley J. Smith is the chair of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.